Everything You Need to Know When Visiting the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the world’s most famous religious buildings and set in the heart of the Vatican, it’s now one of Rome’s most treasured sites. Today, it is a major tourist attraction, one which draws in around 25,000 people every day – that’s 150,000 every week – and 5 million people every year! Make your way to the Sistine Chapel and you could end up sharing the space with around 2,000 other eager tourists. Needless to say, avoiding the crowds isn’t easy when you visit. But as the permanent home to some of the most valuable pieces of art of human history, the swarms of visitors can be forgiven. And despite the crowds, whether you are religious or not, visiting the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel is a magical experience all the same. Michelangelo’s famous ceiling frescoes date from 1508 to 1512 and the Giudizio Universale (The Last Judgement) is the jaw-dropping finale to every visitor’s day at Vatican City. If you’re planning to go to Rome’s most illustrious tourist site, here is everything you need to know before you visit.

HISTORY AND FACTS

The facade of St Peter's Basilica

The Vatican’s famous Sistine Chapel is renowned for its Renaissance art, in particular the ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo. The famous ceiling design, which is the chapel’s main attraction, stretches across an 800 square metre surface. The artwork itself depicts a series of important tales; the Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, the Sacrifice of Noah, Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden (the story of Adam and Eve after accepting the forbidden fruit), the Creation of Eve, the Creation of Adam, Separation of Land from Sea, Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants, and the Separation of Light from Darkness.

Set around the central panels of the Giudizio Universale are 20 athletic looking nude male figures; these nudes are known as the Igundi. The chapel itself dates back to the late 1400s, built by Pope Sixtus IV. The works of art began in the beginning of the 16th Century as commissioned by Pope Julius II. Most of the work was completed by Michelangelo but there was a wide team of artists working on the frescoes over a number of years. The artists included some of the best painters of that century including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Raphael, and Pietro Perugino.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo

Many believe that it’s not possible to put a price on the Sistine Chapel due to the religious worth, which is clearly invaluable, but a banker’s best estimate on the entire wealth of the Vatican would be somewhere between $10 billion and $15 billion. The Vatican also has investments within the banking industry, insurance, chemicals and steel, the construction industry, as well as real estate.The artwork inside the Sistine Chapel took just 4 years to complete despite its expansive size / coverage and the incredible detail involved. As an illustration of just how exceptional that is, it took a restoration team more than 9 years to clean and repair it in recent years.

HOW BIG IS THE SISTINE CHAPEL

The entire chapel is over 40 metres long and over 13 metres wide. It stands more than 20 metres tall and the overall dimensions are the same as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, a structure which was destroyed back in AD 70. The chapel’s paintings famously cover around 1,110 square metres – which can be compared to one sixth of a standard football pitch – and the ceiling fresco alone stretches across 800 square metres.

WHO PAINTED THE SISTINE CHAPEL

Many people will have heard about Michelangelo but the extensive works of art were completed by a number of artists over a number of years. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the frescoes and paintings were worked on by various other big names of that time: like Raphael (1483-1520), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), Pietro Perugino (1446-1523). When first commissioned, Michelangelo (1475-1564) faced two main challenges; firstly, he was experienced in sculpture over painting and secondly, he had to somehow get the figures to appear ‘real’ and ‘life like’ on not a flat, but a domed surface. In order to paint the ceiling, Michelangelo and the team of artists had to adopt a specialist fresco painting technique which required three layers of plaster and working on small sections at a time.

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO PAINT FOR MICHELANGELO

The entire ceiling took 4 years to complete, between the years of 1508 and 1512. The word ‘fresco’ translates as ‘fresh’ in Italian and involves painting hand ground natural earth pigments on a damp lime plaster wall. The plaster needs to be fresh (wet) whilst the painting takes place, so working on a small section at a time was necessary in order to complete elements before the plaster dried. Using a specialised fresco painting technique, Michelangelo used three layers of plaster to create his art; a rough scratch layer, a brown layer, and a third and delicate layer which formed the painting surface. In order to avoid mistakes, it was important for artists to work on small, manageable sections that they could complete before the end of the day. Any errors meant that the entire section would have to be scraped off and repainted again – so there was no room for big oversights.

In recent years, a restoration team was called in to clean and repair the artwork – and this project alone took as long as 9 years! So it still amazes many visitors as to how Michelangelo managed to bring the art to completion in just 4 short years.

WHERE IS THE SISTINE CHAPEL

The Sistine Chapel is in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope inside the Vatican. Vatican City, as it’s more commonly known, occupies a large area in the capital of Rome called The Vatican District. Technically, the Vatican is a small state and it is considered to be the smallest country in the world and within the grounds of the Vatican, you will also be able to visit St Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums and St John in the Lateran and the Cloister.

The closest neighbourhood is the Prati District where you will find a number of hotels and some small shopping areas, follow the river south and you will find yourself in the popular Trastevere neighbourhood where you will get to the best restaurants and nightlife, or head east across the Tiber to the bustling Centro Storico (the location of the Spanish Steps). Set within the central area of Italy’s capital, Vatican City is easy to get to and close to many other tourist sites so your in-city travel will not need extensive planning. The easiest way to get to/from the Vatican is by bus, tram or metro.

WHAT TO WEAR WHEN VISITING THE SISTINE CHAPEL

The creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel

Visitors to the Sistine Chapel and other sites within the Vatican – including the Vatican Gardens, the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica – are required to dress appropriately before entering. The correct dress code is to have arms and shoulders covered as well as legs covered for men and women. So strictly no sleeveless tops and blouses, no miniskirts or dresses, no shorts for men, and no hats.

If you are carrying a bag, suitcase or rucksack larger than 40cm x 35cm x 15cm, it is required that you deposit your belongings in the Vatican cloakroom and it is also asked of guests that if they have any bags that stick out and can obstruct other guests, that these are not carried into the museum area. As a general rule of thumb, small shoulder bags are acceptable and any bags which protrude more than 15cm from the body at its highest point should be stored in the cloakroom. Other items that must be deposited in the cloakroom before entering the Sistine Chapel include large umbrellas, walking sticks (unless you are disabled), camera tripods, any signage (unless you are an official tour guide), sharp objects such as knives and scissors, and any tools that could damage the artwork. 

ARE PHOTOS ALLOWED IN THE SISTINE CHAPEL?

No photography or filming is allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. This is due to a funding agreement with Nippon Television Network (Corporation of Japan), a $4.2 million investor who funded the 9 year restoration project of the Sistine Chapel and all artworks. The funding agreement gave Nippon TV the exclusive photography and video rights of all art inside the building and although this only applies strictly to professional photographers, the Vatican decided to avoid any photography leakage by banning all cameras and video cameras from the chapel.

Upon entering, you will be in view of several guards and they are instructed to stop anyone who tries to take photos or videos on their phones or other recording devices. The surveillance team will collect any photos taken inside the Sistine Chapel and it’s not unlikely for visitors to hear shouting from the guards if someone breaks the rules.

At all other sites within the Vatican, cameras and video cameras are permitted. However, visitors should bear in mind the following rules:

• Flash photography is not allowed inside the Vatican Museums.

• Tripods are not to be used (they must be checked into the Vatican cloakroom before entry).

• There is now a ban on telescopic selfie sticks due to their dangerous and obstructive nature.

WHEN IS THE SISTINE CHAPEL OPEN FOR VISITORS?

The Vatican is open 6 days a week, from Monday to Saturday. It is open on those days from 9am to 6pm but please be aware that the ticket desk closes at 4pm so be sure to get there in good time to make last entry. It should also be noted that visitors are to start exiting half an hour before the final closing time so if you want to get a thorough look at the Sistine Chapel and all of the art, be sure to set aside a good few hours.

Access to the Vatican is not available on Sundays, other than the last Sunday of every month; on this day, there is free entrance from 9am to 12:30pm and the sites will close at 2pm.

One Admission Ticket will give you a full day’s access to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, and these tickets will only be valid on the day of issue. Always consult the latest tariffs before purchasing but tickets are currently €16 Euros with reduced rates for children, schools or seniors.

CAN VISITOR GET A GUIDED TOUR?

Guided tours are highly recommended. The Vatican and Vatican Museums receive a high number of visitors each day and the crowds can be overwhelming. A tour operator is experienced in choosing the best times to visit, will help you get advance bookings to jump the queue, and will also give you a detailed breakdown of all the artwork – information you would otherwise not receive if you visited the Vatican on your own. Find out more about our Rome day tours. Whilst going with a guided group is highly recommended, it is important that visitors avoid scam ticket sellers who may approach people in the queue.

CAN VISITORS ATTEND MASS THERE?

The Sistine Chapel is not open for mass but there are other sites in the Vatican which do offer a mass service for ticket holders. The two main locations for mass are St Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square. Within the Basilica, there is room for up to 15,000 people at a time but seats are not guaranteed for Papal masses and these events are extremely popular with the local people (as well as tourists).

The tickets for mass are free of charge and they are issued a few days before the event for Cardinals, Governors, Diplomats, special guests and also for the general public. You can get them issued directly from the Swiss Guards. For further information on how to get a ticket, the best place to ask is the Visitor Information Desk. Please bear in mind that tickets do not guarantee seats or access into the Basilica. Due to the large numbers of visitors, it is recommended that you arrive a few hours before to avoid disappointment.

FURTHER READING

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